Robbie Shakespeare — an extraordinary bassist, ordinary man

This is the first of a two-part series by cultural historian and director of the Jamaica Music Museum, Herbie Miller on the life and work of master bass player Robert “Robbie” Shakespeare who died on December 8, 2021.

This tribute is particularly difficult to write because it quickly connects more than one emotion. So much of this has to do with my friend and bass player of choice, Robbie Shakespeare, an extraordinary bassist, remarkable producer, globally regarded, and a terrific musician. If the lights and details reflected his name alone in any musical credit or marquee notification, it would resonate for anyone with even a casual affinity for reggae music.

But, on the other hand, to experience Shakespeare's decades of friendship, especially without music as the bond, is to share warmth, love, and loyalty, unconditional. Considering whatever imperfections there were, he was an exceptional representation of humanity. Not only was he an accomplished and decorated member of the music and cultural fraternity, but with all his achievements and embellishments, he remained humble, a regular guy, an ordinary man. Sadly, Robert “Robbie” Shakespeare, a pre-eminent bassist, consequential producer, mentor, and inspiration to many, and an unassuming humanitarian is no longer with us in the flesh.

He was an “East Man,” who grew up in the MacGregor Gully section of Jacques Road in the Corporate Area and gravitated to the rougher elements in the area. But for meeting the bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett, who became his mentor, Shakespeare may have become infamous for deeds other than the music he has become famous for. However, Shakespeare admitted there was an insatiable appetite for learning the bass. So he attached himself to and “wouldn't stop pester Fams,” who eventually taught him to play guitar before introducing the bass. He would recall, whenever his beginnings were discussed during interviews, downtime between studio work or on tour buses, that “it was Family Man that gave me my first bass, the Hoffner hollow-bodied violin bass, which became my favourite instrument”. “Fams took me around to different studios and gave me a chance to play guitar and bass on a song here and there,” Shakespeare would recall with a sense of pride and appreciation that was his way of paying homage to another master bassist. Following Family Man's instructions and seizing his opportunities to play and record, the voraciously eager beginner would eventually become the iconoclastic bassist.

However, his mentor and teacher Barrett notwithstanding, Shakespeare may indeed possess the most recognisable name among Jamaican bass players. He emerged from a linage of exceptional ones and drew inspiration from many. Robbie was very aware of The Skatalites' Lloyd Brevett and considered him the father. His hero was The Supersonics and Treasure Isle bassist Jackie Jackson; he had ultimate respect for others such as Earl “Bagga” Walker at Studio One, Val Douglas, Lloyd Parks, and George 'Fully” Fullwood, who was his replacement in Peter Tosh's band, and whose original lines on Stalag 13 Shakespeare transformed into a perennial classic.

Shakespeare's distinction was the result of a cultivated ear and developed musicianship. He understood that the objective of his involvement in any particular piece of music was to aim for a whole rather than some clever gimmicks, fads, and repetition. In all the situations in which he was involved, the studio or the two prominent bands he played with — Peter Tosh's Word, Sound and Power and Black Uhuru — Shakespeare brought a rich feeling for form, recreating, and reinterpreting melodies, extending themes and bringing significant clarity to the composition. Quite aware of the fundamental role of the bass, he did not allow that prescription to induce a dependency on routine function. Instead, he had the vision to expand the instrument's reach beyond the elemental. He experimented with the harmony of vibrating strings to find a sound that would keep the music intoxicating and maintain the quality of appreciating and responding to complex emotional or aesthetic influences. In addition to his diverse approach, Shakespeare performed a style that inserted grooving bass lines into songs that aroused sensuality and stimulated social autonomy that unhinges below the navel sensations and intimate desire among merrymakers.

Sly and Robbie live

The duo of Sly and Robbie, featuring drummer Sly Dunbar, was intriguing during live performances. Watching Shakespeare on live shows, especially abroad, is to be exposed to a musician unafraid to take chances even though he knew some efforts might fail. For example, in dub segments with Sly, he would play extended lines varying and altering the song as it is known. Both flirted with interpretations of funk grooves before going all out.

During Tosh's Legalize it, the stage would be left to the bassist and drummer to play an extended dub finale. Toward the end of the feature, Sly introduced fragmented or poly rhythmic flashes to which Shakespeare responded with contrasting runs, including an outermost set of low and high tones replete with octaves, double stops, and flamenco-styled strumming before seamlessly uniting on the beat to reintroduce the song's melody.

On Vampire, again with Tosh, vibrating bass tones and muscular lines expanded swelled into surprisingly sustained rumbles, yet his compulsory beat reflected orthodox .

During shows with Black Uhuru, the pair extended the dub factor even further. It was heightened without abandoning the melody or straying into the superficial. “That's when it reached into overdrive – with Black Uhuru,” Dunbar agreed. “Now it had momentum, geography, from Negril to Port Antonio, across to St Thomas and Kingston. It was developed with Uhuru because we produced the songs to accommodate bass and drums. So on Shine Eye Gal, Robbie plays a sound like a bat up and catch, he bats the ball, and I catch it, reshape it, and send it back. We carry it to full drive with Robbie playing the bass pattern at high speed five times, climaxing with the introduction of the next song with relief coming from the rhythm section of guitars and keyboards and provoked by a steady drumbeat and alternative cymbal rippling and swashing, as on Uhuru's Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, additional interpretations flow from Robbie's bass lines with extra movement on separate notes,” Dunbar added.

At their rhythmic peak, Sly and Robbie transmitted impact, unity, communication, and in-the-moment reaction, evident to the discerning observer. Shakespeare provided a reliable, dependably solid bass pulse to Dunbar's impeccably timed drumming and well-placed cymbal exclamations. For his part, Shakespeare relished playing alternative runs, contrasting and enhancing the tune's construction, and anchoring the music with heft and depth. Producing tension and release through spontaneity was a typical feature in live performances.

As a bass and drum tandem, there was a telepathic communication between Dunbar and Shakespeare. They often pivoted toward a sort of spontaneous freedom in live situations, each knowing exactly where the “one” is and within that chaos somehow magically dropped precisely on it. In addition, they developed tremendous energy and stage action by touring with Peter Tosh and performing on festivals with The Rolling Stones, engaging with being close to many super performing rock bands, and bringing that energy to reggae performances. They further extended the experience with Black Uhuru, touring opposite influential musicians, producing some and performing with others, and gaining valuable information that engendered the duo's success and longevity.

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